Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Knies, Niemela, Hirvonen, Thornton & Rielly

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at the team’s old players and its younger prospects. First, I’ll look back a few days to share how three Maple Leafs’ prospects showed at the World Junior Summer Showcase. 

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Second, I’ll share a rumor that Jumbo Joe Thornton is skating in Switzerland and hopes he’ll have another chance to take a run at the Stanley Cup. Finally, I’ll comment on the recent signings of elite NHL defensemen and wonder what they might mean for the Maple Leafs’ ability to re-sign Morgan Rielly.

Item One: Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects At World Junior Summer Showcase

Looking back almost two weeks, in a modified World Junior Summer Showcase that took place July 24-31 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, Maple Leafs fans were able to catch a glimpse of three of the team’s brightest prospects. Because Team Canada could not attend because of COVID-19 restrictions, Team USA hosted Sweden and Finland in a smaller-than-normal tournament. Team USA fielded two split squads to get a better look at its young players.

The three Maple Leafs’ prospects playing in the tournament were American Matthew Knies and young Finnish players Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemela. 

Player One: Matthew Knies (Team USA)

From my reading, heading into this tournament Knies simply wasn’t on people’s radar. In fact, he wasn’t much of a candidate to make Team USA at December’s World Junior Championship. He started the tournament on the fourth line; but, that didn’t last long. He was soon promoted to the top lines, the top power-play unit, the top penalty-kill unit, etc. He even was a go-to player for Team USA when his squad needed a goal late in the game. 

Knies ended the tournament having scored four goals and three assists (for seven points) in six tournament games. That tied him for third place in scoring for the tournament. It also tied him for first among American players. A beat writer for Pension Plan Puppets with the handle There is no brigstew, only Z! called Knies “a scoring chance generating machine, either for himself or a teammate.”

Knies was the Maple Leafs’ second-round choice (57th overall) on July 24, 2021. He had contracted COVID-19 earlier in the season, which was a bit of a setback; however, he’s recovered. Similar to Nick Robertson, the Maple Leafs might have found a quality player outside of the first round in Knies.

Player Two: Topi Niemela [Team Finland]

Young Finnish defenseman Topi Niemela (the Maple Leafs’ third-round [64th overall] draft choice) also showed well at the tournament. He totalled six points in six games, which tied him for the lead in points by a defenseman. Niemela was part of Team Finland’s top pairing. He also was part of the top power-play and top penalty-killing units.

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Similar to Knies, Niemelä played in all situations and was on the ice for big minutes. The word on Niemela coming out of the tournament was that he once again showcased his excellent skating, which has always been seen as a strength. He might need to add a bit of bulk to his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame, but that will likely come as the 19-year-old matures. 

Topi Niemelä Kärpät
Maple Leafs’ Prospect Topi Niemelä of Kärpät (Kärpät)

 Niemela will play the 2021-22 season for Karpat in Liiga (Finnish Elite League).

Player Three: Roni  Hirvonen [Team Finland] 

Roni Hirvonen played on Team Finland’s top line and ended the tournament with eight goals and two assists (for 10 points) in six games. His eight goals led the tournament, and his 10 points put him in second place. However, what seems most exciting for Maple Leafs’ fans is his play with the man advantage, where he had four goals. Those who saw the games noted that his positioning and his reflexes were both elite.

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Although he’s listed as a center, Hirvonen played on Team Finland’s first line as a winger with Aatu Raty at center. Raty was the New York Islanders second-round pick (52nd overall) during the last NHL Entry Draft. Raty also looks like a good pick up, and led the tournament in total points with 14 in six games. 

Item Two: Joe Thornton Wants One More Crack at NHL

On Sunday, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun reported that Joe Thornton would like one more chance to play on an NHL roster and take a run at the Stanley Cup. As Simmons noted:

Joe Thornton Toronto Maple Leafs
Joe Thornton, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Joe Thornton is skating in Europe, hoping to still play. If anything, he’s an optimist … he Maple Leafs are over the NHL salary cap but don’t have to be cap compliant until next season begins.” (from “SIMMONS SAYS: Canada’s golden Olympic moments will stay with us forever,”  Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun, 08/08/21).

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The most pressing issue the Maple Leafs have to my mind is the question of what happens to defenseman Morgan Rielly. The recent signings of elite defensemen around the NHL suggest that Rielly will likely be in high demand and will also be in line for a decent contract. He’s entering the final season of his current $5 million contract. 

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Given that the Edmonton Oilers signed Darnell Nurse, the Colorado Avalanche signed Cale Makar, and the Chicago Blackhawks also signed Seth Jones – who are all younger than Rielly – for around $9 million this offseason, one would think that Rielly would at least come in around $7.5 million. 

Does the team want him back? Even if they do, can they afford to bring him back? Finally, what salaries would they be willing to move out if they did?

My call is that, as much as I like Rielly as a person and a player, it’s time to go with the younger defensemen in the system. Could a move be coming there? That’s something to watch for.

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